Intermediate Information: May 2007 Archives
I am hoping to buy in the (city) area and am reviewing the possibilities. While I fear that the local market may be peaking, I intend to live in the home for at least ten years, so I am not trying to time the market.
My questions have to do with the down payment. I expect to shop for a property in the $450,000 range, and currently have $60,000 available for a down payment. I make a decent salary and receive an annual bonus of $35,000 - $40,000 each February. The bonus, while not guaranteed, is very dependable. After taxes and deductions, I should realize about $20,000 - $25,000 from it.
Do you think I would be wise to wait until February, by which time I will be able to make a down payment of $90,000 and perhaps avoid PMI and pay less interest over the life of the loan, or seek to buy now and lessen the taxes on the bonus? (I itemize, am single and am in the 28% bracket). Will the greater down payment help me to capture a better interest rate on the loan? (My credit scores are right around 800). Also, if I buy now, is it possible that I will be able to negotiate a mortgage in such a way that I can pay my realized bonus in February as a lump sum towards the remaining principal without incurring penalties? Ideally, i would like to use my bonus each year to pay down principal, as I can afford to balance my budget, including regular mortgage payments, without touching the bonus.
While on the subject of credit scores, I am reminded of another question - does an 800 score do me any good as contrasted with, a 740 or 750? Thank you again for your consideration. Your writings have been invaluable to my education.
I needed some more information, so got a subsequent email
I would expect the property taxes to run about $5,000 annually and association dues to be another $350 monthly. As I don't have a car, parking fees will be inapplicable. My closing costs should be somewhat reduced as I work for a bank (parent company) and they offer employees favorable mortgage rates with no points and no origination fees. Of course if I go elsewhere for the loan that would not apply, but I would only expect to do so if I received even more favorable terms.
As for an equivalent property, the market would price the rent at about $2,200 a month, although I am only paying $1,520 now (for a less desirable place than what I am shopping for).
First things first. You are easily A paper. Some lenders might have a small incentive (no more than 1/4 of a discount point) for folks with credit scores over 760, but most don't, and even if you go looking for one that does, it's no guarantee that their overall rate will be better than what you could get elsewhere. Remember, it's not important that they give you a quarter point incentive if their trade-offs were more than that above the competition. Look for a loan based upon the bottom line to you, not a little tweak that says you get treated a little better than the next guy.
Second, split your loan into two pieces to avoid PMI. One first loan for 80% of the value, and a second for the remainder, whatever that is. The second will be at a higher rate, but better that than paying PMI on the whole balance. It's likely to save you a lot of money this way. If you intend to pay it down, be very certain that there will be no prepayment penalty.
Now, let's look at now versus basically a year from now (Since February is ten months away). One thing I'm going to look at is whether your location may be above sustainable levels. My rule of thumb is that if a 20% down payment won't break even on rental cashflow, your area is likely to be overpriced. With current rates (6.25% for a thirty year fixed rate loan at par for the first, something like 9% for a 10% second), payment on $360,000 runs about $2215, plus taxes of $420 per month plus association dues of $350 plus an allowance of $50 per month for insurance. Total $3035 per month. As opposed to $2200 rent. An investor would be down $835 per month even if the place was never vacant and never needed repairs. Prices would need to drop $100,000 at least to cover that. I'm also going to assume you need $10,000 for closing costs out of your own pocket, reducing your down payment to $50,000. Now, I'm going to look 10 years out based upon this situation.
Now, let's look at suppose prices have come down that same $100,000 in a year, but rents have gone up by inflation - roughly 4%. However, rates are a bit higher - let's say 7 percent. Furthermore, you have $90,000 less $10,000 for closing costs leaves $80,000 down payment. I'm assuming property taxes are based upon purchase price, as they are here in California, but if they don't go down when prices go down, that's going to make a difference of about $100 per month to start and more later on. Let's look 9 years out for an equivalent time frame.
The picture looks much better by waiting a year for the market to get rational - assuming it does. If it doesn't, all you've done is taken that last year of benefits off the first chart, or worse, as perhaps the prices continue to rise for another year. Nor have I assumed that you paid extra on the loan. Quite frankly, once you've killed off that second trust deed, leverage is your friend, and you are better off investing the difference.
The question is "When is Wile E. Coyote going to look down?" Okay, not all that funny, but it has applicability to the situation. As long as everyone is in denial, and there is a market of folks willing to pay those prices, the market is going to stay afloat. What's caused our local sputter is the fact that everyone has "looked down", and they don't like what they see. There is no convincing reason why highly paid jobs have to be even more highly paid so that they can afford local housing here, whereas a large proportion of the jobs in certain cities like Washington DC or New York don't really have the option of leaving, as they are where they have to be. The government isn't leaving Washington DC unless it gets nuked, and the big guns of the financial industry aren't leaving New York unless every other big gun does so. You know better than I to where your city lies on that spectrum. My impression is that where you are is closer to the inelastic employment point. Nonetheless, if the rest of the country "looks down," so will those places that are relatively insulated.
If a 20 percent down payment doesn't pencil out as an investment property, as it doesn't in your case, the question is not "if?" the market is going to adjust, but "when?" and "how?" Here locally, you can almost hear the "pop!" If things are relatively inelastic, employer- and jobs-wise, a long slow deflation may be what occurs. You may even keep current prices while inflation makes things catch up. It's hard to say when I'm not as familiar with your city's economic engine as I am with my own, but here's what happens if prices stay stable for ten years:
As you can see, you build up a fair amount of equity, but would have been better off renting and investing the difference.
Which of these scenarios is most likely? Here it's the one attached to the first two tables, except that we're a good portion of the way towards table two right now. Where you are, I'd make an educated guess that you're still looking at table one right now. There's money to be made even there if you buy and hold long enough, but you could be upside down for quite a while.
Thank You for asking, and please let me know if this doesn't answer all of your questions.
I read a lot of the info. you have on your web page ... thank you.
I don't live in San Diego so I'm not looking for a home.
What I am trying to decide is whether to sell or refinance.
I live in DELETED. My mortgage payments are now approx. $2,400. I cannot afford to refinance into a fixed rate mortgage or interest only. I wanted to reduce my payments and I was recently offered a neg-amortized loan.
While I do have plenty of equity in the home, I balk at the thought of using my home as a piggy-bank. It's just not my style. I feel like I made a terrible mistake. I had a very modest home ... fairly low payments & property taxes ... but I wanted more, so I sold it.
I bought a good-sized lot with the proverbial "fixer-upper." Mistake #1 I should have thought of it as the "MONEY PIT."
Anyway, five years later and I've just survived a remodel but I'm still struggling.
Do you have any sound advice/suggestions?
First off, despite your market being somewhere I am licensed, each area's market is significantly different. Unlike the loan market, each commuting area has enough of its own concerns that nobody can keep track of more than one - not really. If someone called me out of the blue and asked me to list a property even a few miles outside my normal area of San Diego County, I would not have a good idea what it should list for. I can do a comparative market analysis, but that's just cranking numbers, and there's a lot more to market knowledge than cranking numbers. I can point to a dozen properties I've looked at in the last week where the listing agent priced it wrong. Sometimes they're under, sometimes they're over. Whichever it is, it's not good for the owner. Some agents will tell you there's no harm in being high, which is a premeditated lie. Properties that sit on the market because they are priced too high will sell for less money than the owners could have gotten, and that's if they sell.
Some properties are money pits, while others are vampires, charming on the surface, while they embed their fangs permanently in your wallet. The best opportunities, however, are all fixers. The reasons a good buyer's agent is worth more than they will ever make are legion, no matter how much our local dog-target keeps pushing discounters. I just got a call from one pushing a property I previewed last week. Yes, it had a view, but the view was of a high school stadium, and every surface in every room needed to be redone. It's got potential, but it's going to take $100,000 to get that potential, and the property would only be worth maybe $40,000 more than they're asking. Leave out those pesky numbers and a less capable agent can make it seem like a great bargain. On the other hand, I found the same people a property not far away that needed about $40,000 worth of work to be worth $120,000 more than the asking price. Money the discounter would have rebated: roughly $5000. Difference in outcome: $80,000 in prospective equity and $60,000 of wasted work. Prospective differences in listing agents are every bit as large.
Now, let's consider the kinds of issues that might give you a better idea about what to do about your situation.
You say you've been through a remodel and have significant equity. That's good news in that you are not "upside down", but should be able to sell the home for more than you owe on it. That's better than a lot of folks right now.
However, the unavoidable fact is that it costs money to sell. A good listing agent is going to cost money - and a bad listing agent will cost you more, and this cost is no less real for the fact that most of it won't be on the HUD-1. A good listing agent is going to tell you to offer a good buyer's agent percentage, also. Furthermore, you're going to buy a home warranty, and a policy of title insurance. I warn my fixer clients that it's going to cost about eight percent of value to get the fixed up property sold at a good price - so they might as well include that estimate in the calculations of whether the property is worth buying in the first place. I'd rather work a little harder, and have a client that keeps coming back to me because they keep making a profit worth making. So figure eight percent of value in addition to the fact that this market is very soft for sellers, although I'm seeing indications my local market may be firming up. Your market may be softer or not so soft. The softer it is, the less you're going to need to be prepared to accept if you sell. Around here, if you've got a property that appraises for $500,000, you may only get $480,000 or less on the purchase contract - and you may have to give allowances on top of that. $480,000 less eight percent is $441,600, and if you have to give a $15,000 allowance for closing costs, that's $426,600. So you can have a good amount of equity on the face of things, and be upside-down in fact when it comes to the actual sale. Even if you have $100,000 in equity, it just turned into $25,000 to get you out from under a loan you can't afford. That's my local market. Yours may be different, of course.
On the other hand, given the fact that you cannot afford your payment, your alternatives do not include doing nothing. If you try to do nothing, you will have your credit ruined and lose the property as well as quite likely get a 1099 love note from the lender that says you owe taxes and possibly (depending upon whether or not your loan has recourse) a deficiency judgment. So doing nothing is not an option.
The other alternative is a negative amortization loan. I don't know what numbers you would get, so I'm going to assume something fairly middle of the road. A 1% payment on $400,000 would be $1287, saving you $1100 per month in cash flow. On the other hand, if your real rate is 7.75 (reasonably median), at the end of two years you owe $433,500, and that's no including the prepayment penalty. After three years, when most negative amortization penalties expire, you owe $452,000, assuming rates stay exactly where they are, which I do not expect them to. Even if you got the loan for zero cost, you spent $1450 per month of your equity. In order for you to come out even, you'd have to net almost $479,000. That means a little over $520,000 sales price in three years if you don't have to fork over that $15,000 allowance, or $537,000 if you do.
It's true that you don't have to make only the minimum payment every month. Nor do you want to. However, let's be honest with ourselves. For most people, most of the time, they will. Even if they had it to spend on the mortgage, the kids need shoes, they "need" a new car, or they "need" a vacation. My understanding is that less than 5 percent of the people who have negative amortization loans make bigger payments than minimum more than five percent of the time. So whereas you won't necessarily owe this much in three years, it seems a pretty good bet to me.
Now here's where people helping people in situations like yours get grey hairs. We're guessing at where the market is going to be in three years. Not only about what we think the general market will be like, but what we think this property will be worth. Some things are consistent. For instance, unless you do another remodel, it's unlikely your property will spontaneously acquire brand new cabinets and stainless steel appliances, and since you are stating that you can't afford your current payment, it's unlikely that you'll be able to purchase such. Your property will probably compare to the rest of the market about like it does today, or maybe a little worse. The carpet will get older, the paint on the walls will be a little older, the shingles on the roof will have used three more years of their useful life. You get the idea.
On the other hand, the market really doesn't have to gain much to offset this. Mostly it just has to firm up, and if it does so, then even a two and a half percent annualized rise in prices would cause you to break even. On the average, that's trivial. Less than half the overall average annualized rise. On the other hand, it's not something I or anyone else can guarantee. It's investment risk. The market could continue to slide for a while, or it could be completely flat. Once you buy an investment, any investment, there is no way to remove risk from the equation completely. One of the things that caused the problems a lot of the country has in the current market was agents who promised the people that their property would appreciate - and sometimes it doesn't. It's one thing for people to make the choice knowing the risks; it's quite another to sell them property by telling them that "real estate always appreciates," or even that "Real estate never loses value." Both are patently false.
As to what I expect my local market to do the next three years: I do expect it to firm up. I've started to see this happening already. Due to the number of bad loans, however, mostly people that were sold negative amortization loans, I don't expect to see any large increases for the next few years.
There is one more level of complexity to add, though. What are you going to do for a place to live if you sell? What do the alternatives look like? How are rents, and what are likely to do in your area? Are landlords going to have to increase them? Are people moving out of your area, causing them to drop? A good agent in your area will know. It's not happening to any appreciable degree here, but this isn't your area. To the extent it is happening here, people are more than replacing them.
These, then, are some of the things to consider. There's less risk in the "sell now" option, but you're accepting a significant hit by exercising it. If you hang on those three years, you might be just fine, or you might be hosed even more completely than you are now. Given that you know you can't afford the property, if you came to me I'd probably advise you to sell now. That's the safe option, however unsatisfying it is. Once you have sold, the hemorrhaging is over - you're not bleeding green every month. Sell to someone who can afford the property, and who can afford the risk that it will further decrease in value over the short term. The assumption would be that they would be getting a deal - but what if you hold on and the dice come up snake eyes? You are looking at a maximum length of time before you will have to cut your losses or have them cut for you. This is a recipe for a disaster even bigger than selling now.
A while ago I wrote an article called, "What Happens When You Can't Make Your Real Estate Loan Payment." This is kind of a continuation of that, as I got a search that asked, "What is necessary to persuade a bank to accept a short payoff on a mortgage"
Poverty. In a word, poverty. You have to persuade the bank that this is the best possible deal they are going to get. You can't make the payments, and if they foreclose they will get less money.
A "short sale" or short payoff is defined as a sale where the proceeds from the sale will not cover the secured obligations of the owner. The cash they will receive from the sale is "short" of the necessary amount. The house is no longer worth what they paid for it.
There are more and more of these happening around here. There are always people that lost their good job and can't get a replacement nearly as good. But now there are also people that were put into too much house, and approved for too much loan, and now they can't make the payments. Unscrupulous agents that wanted a bigger commission, loan officers going along, and nobody acting like they were responsible for the consequences to their clients. My concern for lenders who do stated income and negative amortization loans (and a lot of loans that are both!) is kind of minimal. Okay, it's very minimal. Like nonexistent smallest violin in the world playing "My Heart Cries For Thee" level sympathy. I forsee many lenders going through bad times ahead, to use a forecasting method that's about as mysterious as falling rocks.
On the other hand, for the people who were led into these transactions by agents with a fiduciary responsibility towards them, I have great heaping loads of sympathy and I'll do anything I can to help. Yes, they're theoretically responsible adults, but when the universe and everyone is telling them all the things that buyers were told these last couple of years, it's understandable. Sure there's a greed component in many cases but when they're told by both loan officers and the real estate agents that they "wouldn't have qualified for the loan if you couldn't afford it," they are being betrayed by the same people who are supposed to be professionals looking out for their interests. I really do suggest finding a good lawyer to these folks, as those agents who did this to them (and their brokerages) better have had insurance which said lawyer can sue to recover money they never should have been out.
I'm going to sketch it out in broad terms, but there are a lot of tricks to the trade. This is not something to try "For Sale By Owner."
First off, you need to draw a coherent picture of the loan payment being unaffordable. If you were on a negative amortization approaching recast, or hybrid ARM (usually interest only for the fixed period) that is now ready to adjust, you're facing a much higher payments. Even if you were able to afford the minimum payment before, now you can't and you've decided to sell for what you can get before it bankrupts you to no good purpose. You're going to have to prove you can't afford it, of course, the bank isn't just going to accept your word, but several late payments or a rolling sixty day late that looks headed for ninety have been known to be persuasive. Nonetheless, there are a lot of tacks that you don't want to take. Remember, lenders want to be repaid and they've got a couple of pretty powerful sticks to shake at you. They are not going to agree to sacrifice money merely because to make the payments would be uncomfortable for you. You're going to have to persuade them it's impossible.
Second, you're going to have to persuade the lender that this is the best possible price that you are going to get, and that anything more they might get from foreclosure is going to be more than offset by what they'll lose through the expenses involved. Not to mention that they might end up owning the property, which they don't want to do because then they have to spend more money selling it.
Third, you've got to be on the ball about the transaction itself. All the ducks have to be in the row from the start, which is when you approach the lender with a provisional transaction. If they're not, the lender is just not going to go through the process of approving a short sale until they are. Since this takes time, it has the effect of dragging out the transaction. Every missed deadline means the lender will look at the whole thing again, possibly changing their mind about approving the short sale. You need a qualified buyer.
Fourth, just be prepared for the fact that the lender is not only not going to approve the transaction if you get any money, but that they're also going to send you a form 1099 after it is all done. This form 1099 will report income for you from forgiveness of debt. This is taxable income! Many agents eager to make a sale will not tell the sellers this, and when you get right down to it, there is no legal requirement to do so, but I've always thought this was one of the ways to tell a good agent from a not-so-good one. It does seem like something you should be told about before you've got the 1099 form in your mailbox, right? At that point, you are stuck with all of the consequences, where if you had known before, you might not have been so complacent. It is to be noted I've been made aware of ways to circumvent the "no money to the owner" requirement, but they are FRAUD, as in go to jail for a while and be a convicted felon for the rest of your life FRAUD. It can be tempting, but committing fraud is one of the most effective ways I know to make a bad situation worse.
For the buyer, short sales are attractive for any number of reasons. Typically the seller is in a situation where they have to sell, and everyone knows it. The option of waiting for a better offer really isn't on the table if what you're offering is anything like reasonable. They can't bluff you, they should know that bluffing you is a waste of effort, and somebody should have explained to them that they really just want out now (and why this is so) before it gets worse. What's not to like?
Your competition. Because there's fast money to be made, these folks are the target of "flippers" everywhere. The large city, highly inflated markets more so than most. A couple weeks ago we put one on the market and got three ugly low-ball offers within 48 hours, and this is part of why you need an agent to sell one. Remember, the seller isn't getting any money, but they are going to get a 1099 form that says they have to pay taxes. Don't you think most folks would rather it was for less money, and therefore, less taxes, instead of more? The more money the lender loses, the higher your liability. Had any one of the three made a better offer in the first place, they would have gotten the property at a price to make a profit, but they had to prove how rapacious they were, or something. As it was, we jawboned the first three vultures and two other, later entries, into a quasi-decent price, with minimal later tax obligation to our seller.
In summation, "short sales" are a way to cut your losses for sellers, and a way to get a wonderful price for buyers, but you have to know how to convince the lenders to accept them, and how not to overplay your bargaining position, lest you get left out in the cold.
I realized that I hadn't covered timeshares, and decided it was time.
I suppose I should define what a timeshare is, just in case. A timeshare is a property where you buy the rights to use it for a certain amount of time every year. The most typical time share is a two week period.
Timeshares are attractive to developers because they can get more money for building the same property. You might have a high-rise full of condos where the market price might be $200,000 each. But they can sell each of twenty-six timeshares for maybe $20,000 each. Because it's not such a big bite, their potential market is far wider, and they can sell to way more people. People are willing to pay more for vacation lodging that regular housing.
Developers also make money off of the financing, and off of the monthly dues for management expenses, which are analogous to association dues in a condominium association, paid to keep the complex maintenance up (and usually maid service, etcetera). Furthermore, since very few lenders want to finance timeshares, the interest rate can be (and usually is) outrageous, not to mention that you should be prepared for severe interest rate sticker shock if you're financing one somewhere outside the United States. The developer can gouge because most lenders won't touch timeshares, and it's not like the buyers are going to do any better elsewhere. Title insurance companies don't like timeshares either.
Developers love to tell potential buyers that timeshares are an investment, because they are real estate. The fact is that timeshares are like cars - there's a large initial hit on value, the instant the transaction is final. Nor do they tend to recover. There are at least two websites that specialize in helping you sell your timeshare, because most people figure out within a year or two that they've been taken. I don't deal with them any more than I can avoid, but I have never even heard of someone recovering their investment in a timeshare (except the developer).
Sometimes the time you buy is always the same two weeks in the same unit, but this can very. Quite a few have a yearly drawing among owners of a given unit for the most desirable time frames, and a few even put all units and all owners into the pool. Read the individual sales contract carefully for how this is accomplished. If you have or draw a time that's unusable to you, most of the same places that will help you sell the timeshare in its entirety will also help you sell or trade your time slot for the year. Nor do folks generally get back their annual cost of the unit by selling their time slot, but it can be a good way to buy a vacation time slot cheap if you are prudent and plan ahead.
Furthermore, of course the timeshare is always in the same place. This is great if you want to return to Honolulu every single year, but not so great if you want to go a different place every year. Many developers tout swap programs, often to swap your slot in such desirable locales as Ultima Thule for one in Tahiti. Not likely to happen, or if it does, likely to require a good deal of cash outlay in the direction of the people who bought in Tahiti.
Additional issues are that maintenance can be problematical. Since no single owner is responsible for the complete upkeep of any given unit, let alone the entire complex, the management is often lax about repairs and preventative maintenance. After all, if they put that new roof off for a year they can just pocket the money. Where even condominium owners have to deal with any problems pretty much every day, timeshare owners are there for a couple of weeks per year.
All of this is not to say that there are no happy timeshare owners. If you are going to go to Las Vegas for two weeks every year and your schedule is flexible enough that you can go no matter what time slot you end up with, more power to you, and a timeshare might be the way to go. If you need to go during the summer months because that's when the kids are out of school, or if you don't necessarily want to go there every year, not so much. I've never owned one myself, but I understand some nasty fights break out among co-owners for time slots, as well. Most people think the idea of a timeshare in Phoenix is to go there in the winter and play golf while the rest of the country is freezing, not go from perfectly acceptable weather elsewhere on July 4th to a modern day version of the La Brea Tar Pits because the temperature is 125 degrees Farentheit where the asphalt melts and people sink in and get trapped.
UPDATE: Got a question
I'm guessing by your website that you are a realtor, but maybe you can provide me into some insight about the legalities of timeshares. My husband and I have one, and like most, are not satisfied. I am willing to cut my losses, but am curious about the legal consequences of not paying the monthly dues. Is this even an area you can guide me in? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
It varies with the laws of the jurisdiction where the property sits, but in general, failure to pay dues is grounds for foreclosure under rules not too much different than those for trust deeds. Yes, it hurts your credit as well.
I don't endorse specific providers, but you might try running "timeshare broker websites" or something similar through the search engine of your choice. You probably won't break even, but it's worth some money to get out with a clean credit record.
This was a comment on an article on my other site, Real Estate Sellers Giving A Buyer Cash Back. The interesting thing is proposing hourly pay instead of commission for agents.
That makes a lot of sense. Disclosing (net) cash back to the lender changes the purchase price, which also changes the buyer's basis in the property - sorting out the tax situation nicely as well. And when a buyer is bringing a down payment to the table, they should be able to vary it as necessary to keep the LTV where they want it.
Speaking of choosing buyer's agents, though, I wonder what your opinion is of paying one by the hour (instead of via commission)? In the future day when I might be in a position to buy, there's a local buyer agency (who actually maintains a reasonably informative blog about the local market) that has the option to work that way and I'd welcome a third-party perspective on the pros and cons.
My view of them is -
1. For buyers is willing to do their own research and self-direct their search, they can get the specific parts of the buyer's agent package they want a-la-carte, without having to buy the whole package.
2. Since the agent's compensation isn't driven by the price of the property selected (or the commission a seller is offering) there's significantly greater incentive alignment between a buyer and their agent.
1. If the buyer/agent relationship doesn't work out for whatever reason, a buyer still ends up spending cash for the hours used.
He's got some good points. Here are some more that I see:
First off, when do you fork over the money? Up front? Is the up-front money refundable? How easily? This could quite easily be a tool for locking up exclusive business. They do a rotten job, but you've already got $5000 on deposit with them, so you figure you might as well get what good you can out of what you've got spent. Commissions are contingent upon an actual finished transaction. In other words, I've got to get the job done in order to get paid a commission. I don't have to get it done to get paid an hourly rate.
Second, it occurs to me that this may be something aimed at getting more money: The hourly pay on top of the commission. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who don't realize that buyer's agents get paid out of the listing agents commission. What happens to the buyer's agent part of the commission? Is it used as an offset, is it refunded point-blank (running squarely into the issue of fraud if there's a loan), or what? The most likely way would be as an offset against outstanding hourly, and the remainder rebated for closing costs only. However, 2.5 to 3% of the purchase price can be an awful lot for a buyer to pay in closing costs, even with seeding an impound account in California. The buyer is likely to end up basically using the money to buy the rate down further than is really beneficial, simply because there's no other benefit they can legally get out of that money. So I tell you not to waste your money buying the rate down too far, then I give you the choice of that or forfeiting the rest of it to no good purpose. Does anyone else see the contradiction here?
Third, what is the basis for billable hours? Is it time actually spent with the client, or is it time spent working on the client's file? If the client isn't present, how does the client verify the figures?
The time I actually spend with clients is a fairly small proportion of all the work I spend on them. Maybe 20 percent, at the very most. Consider the parable of the iceberg: What you get is a lot more than what you see at first glance. Last week, I spent six hours looking for one set of clients, and another couple hours on-line winnowing before that. It took us less than two hours to view the properties I decided were worth showing them. Do I charge based upon my time spent, or based upon actual face time?
Now ask yourself, does the basis for billable hours constitute a hindrance to effective job performance? I have thought about it, and "face time" billing would cause most agents - and their supervising brokers - to be a lot less generous with their "file time". But "File time" is what makes a good agent. If I bill based upon "file time", I've got to be able to show what I did with that time, and I'm going to be running head on into clients who won't believe I spend the time I've spent, or at least say they don't, no matter how good the documentation. But does billing by "file time" give agents incentive to pad their time sheets? It seems likely to me that it would. Does billing by "face time" give agents an incentive to go as slowly as possible? Seems likely to me that it would, when the clients incentives are directly opposite. Not all agents would abuse either one of these, but enough would.
Here's another issue: Agents don't get every penny of what they "make". Brokerages have expenses, and they're entitled to make a profit on what they provide. Agents individually have expenses, some of which are fixed, and some of which are variable. If we work on an hourly basis, how much do we add for overhead? Are the clients going to be receptive to it? Even if I bill by "file time" there's a lot of stuff I couldn't bill for, but is nonetheless essential to the proficient practice of real estate. Nonetheless, as any accountant or business school graduate will tell you, you have to recover the costs somehow in order to stay in business, and the way they generally do it is by building an overhead allowance into billing. I occasionally do consulting work at $150 per hour. Even with the more efficient, longer relationship of finding a client a property, I'd need to bill at least $70 per hour to end up with a middle class living at the end of the month. I strongly suspect most folks wouldn't be inclined to pay those kind of wages without evidence of value provided in advance. This would discourage clients from signing up with newer agents or brokerages who might very well do a better job than someone long established who has gotten lazy. Without a proven track record (as in "known to them"), how are you going to persuade the average schmoe who has only been told that, "Real Estate agents don't even need any college!" to fork over $70 per hour before they've seen the work? Commissioned salespersons have to get the job done before they get paid. Not so hourly workers. I realize business people do it all the time, as I've been on both ends of that, but most folks aren't business people, and even the ones who are tend to take a different approach to their personal affairs. Finally, can I really justify billing my consulting work $150/hour while only billing actual buyer clients at half that rate? I'm not going to reduce the consulting rate. If my time is worth $150 per hour (as my consulting clients have told me it is), it's worth $150 per hour. You willing to pay $150 per hour for my expertise, sight unseen? Other people have and will again, but that enlisted military man that walked into our office this afternoon might have some difficulty. I suspect most people would rather let me keep the buyer's agent commission. What if we're billing by "face time"? I'd have to charge a much higher number of dollars per hour to pay for my preparation time. Fact.
Let's ask if most people are likely to be adult enough to pay for something everyone else is offering "free", or at least where they don't have to write a check for money they have painstakingly saved? If the abomination that is Internet Explorer doesn't persuade you on that score, I've got my experience with Upfront Mortgage Brokers to fall back upon, and I can tell you that the answer is most emphatically no, at least in the aggregate. Every time I've had somebody ask about doing a loan on the UMB mandated basis of known fixed compensation, they've ended up canceling the loan. The UMB actually lets me offer cheaper loans than my normal "fixed loan type - known rate - guaranteed costs" because the client bears the risk of late loans, somehow mis-adding adjustments, etcetera. With UMB, I agree to get the loan done for a fixed amount of total compensation - but the clients know what that number is, and it isn't what most people think of as "cheap". With my normal guarantee, I assume the pricing risks, but I have to include the costs of those risks in my retail pricing. Upshot: The loans are slightly more expensive, but people like them much better. The only possible reason I can find for this difference is that they don't have an explicit figure for how much I and my company are making (gross - the net is much lower). Now choosing or not choosing a loan based upon the fact that it seems the loan company is making a lot of money is a great way to shoot yourself in the wallet. People tell themselves that the loan company is "making way too much money" off their loan and end up choosing the lender who offers something at a higher rate that costs thousands of dollars more - but doesn't have to disclose how much they make. I've not only seen it in action - I read a research paper documenting precisely this about two years ago (I went looking for it again about six months ago and couldn't find it. If anyone has a link, it would be appreciated).
All of the preceding are not reasons to refuse to offer hourly compensation. They are simply reasons why I wouldn't expect a lot of it. The final consideration is this: Most agents are independent contractors, not hourly employees. Would hourly compensation create a situation where the Labor Board would rule that this hourly pay pushes agents over the line into an employer-employee relationship? Given how most brokerages require their agents to do other things that are on the list of bullet points of statutory employees (regular required meetings, etcetera), it seems likely to me that it would be enough extra that FLRB might well rule that the agents involved are now statutory employees. This would change everything about the broker-agent relationship from its long-established norm (Brokerages would have to pay overtime, Social Security taxes, minimum wage. Holidays. Minimum time off. Etcetera. They might even have to deal with agent's unions). I don't say that agents couldn't work on an employee basis, but all of these added costs to the brokerage would certainly tend to make the wall of getting started higher for new agents, and harder to negotiate, thereby artificially restricting the number of agents. This would have the effect of limiting competition. I don't think that's a good idea for consumers, although the big chains would certainly love it, as it would make it harder for independents to compete.
If you think paying by the hour a way to get superior real estate services cheaper, I have some land in Florida. Who's going to charge low hourly rates? Unprepared, less qualified agents. It might work out to be a little less, and people who have the intestinal fortitude to move quickly without being goosed on the biggest transaction of their lives might save a little bit in that the agent or brokerage's total compensation is a little less than it otherwise would have been, but where is the level of the value they provided in order to earn that money likely to be? I submit to you that I have reason to believe it would be considerably lower in the aggregate. More than enough lower to place their patrons in the unenviable position of buying the real estate equivalent of the Yugo.
In short, I see a whole lot of drawbacks, many of which are fairly well buried, while only a few advantages, which may be obvious but are outweighed for the vast majority of the population by the drawbacks. I might be willing to do it for the right client who asks, but I'm certainly not going to advertise it.
UPDATE: Thanks to Russell Martin of http://www.smartmortgageadvice.com, here's the link to the FTC study: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2004/01/030123mortgagefullrpt.pdf
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